YALI Network member Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin is a social impact entrepreneur and a prominent figure in advocacy in Nigeria. Like many of the young girls she now supports, Abisoye had a difficult upbringing and faced many obstacles on her path toward becoming the woman she is today.
As she was always interested in technology, Abisoye took an internship with an IT audit firm while attending a computer institute. Her work experience with the IT audit firm ignited an interest in computers and the opportunities available for those less fortunate in her community. Abisoye channeled this interest into the creation of GirlsCoding Nigeria, an initiative that trains, mentors and coaches girls from underserved communities in IT skills, and Pearls Africa, an NGO that teaches life skills to vulnerable young girls. In 2018, Abisoye received international recognition as a CNN Hero for her work.
In this podcast, Abisoye shares real-life stories about the impact of her organizations and the ways in which young girls have used the skills they have learned to improve their lives. Abisoye also discusses her hopes to expand each project in the future and offers advice to other members of the YALI Network.
“The advice I’d like to give to YALI Network members that would like to do what I’m doing is you should know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Abisoye says. “The reason why you do what you do will help you when you want to give up.”
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: ABISOYE AJAYI-AKINFOLARIN
ABISOYE AJAYI-AKINFOLARIN: My name is Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin. I live in Lagos, Nigeria. I’m the founder of Pearls Africa Foundation.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin is the founder of GirlsCoding Nigeria, an initiative that trains, mentors and coaches girls from underserved communities in IT skills, and Pearls Africa, an NGO that teaches life skills to vulnerable young girls. Recognized as one of the most powerful names in advocacy in Nigeria and a 2018 CNN Hero, Abisoye aims to give girls not just a voice, but the opportunity to be economically empowered with skills they can use in future careers.
In this edition of the YALI Voices podcast, Abisoye speaks about her youth and how it led her to the path on which she finds herself, how GirlsCoding Nigeria and Pearls Africa are already creating opportunities for some of the most vulnerable girls in her community, and how she uses the YALI online courses in her training.
Abisoye can relate to the challenges and hardships facing the young girls she is committed to helping. We begin our conversation with her sharing her own difficult journey to education and independence.
ABISOYE: I was born in Akure, Nigeria, in those states. And my mom died when I was 4. My father became kind of violent, and, um, I mean, we were always beaten. You know, I’m the last of my mom — we were five from my mom. We were a total of 10 from three women. And I left home at 15, of course without my father’s permission, because I needed — I’ll say I needed a good life or a different life. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I felt where I was coming from was nowhere I’m supposed to be, so I came to Lagos, lived with people, lived with my brother, lived with family friends. Then I was practically hiding from my dad because he was a very influential man, and I felt he could find me anywhere, so I remember — I mean, my older siblings had to tell him that, over the phone, that I was no longer in Nigeria, I was in the U.S., so that he can actually stop looking for me.
Then I needed to complete my secondary education. I went to Jos. Jos is a northern part of Nigeria, and it’s 13 hours’ drive from Lagos. So it’s somewhere I knew that my father didn’t have influence because he’s not a Northern person. He’s not from Jos. He doesn’t really know anyone from there. So that is where I completed my secondary education. Then I came back to Lagos. I was getting tired because I felt, when I went back to Lagos, I’m home, I don’t go out. And part of the plan was that I was meant to forget everything about where I was born, forget my friends, forget everyone I knew so that nothing connects me back to my father.
And that was the case. But I was getting tired because I felt I wasn’t living a life that was there to live. Not that I knew where I was going again, but I wasn’t just comfortable. The fact that I couldn’t go out, couldn’t make friends, couldn’t really do a lot — I was telling my siblings I would like to go back home and declare my freedom. So I remember we went back home — myself, my sister, my brother. We went back home. Daddy was not really feeling well at the time. But it was just a way for him, to let him know that I’m around and I’m free to move around.
And getting admission into university was also very, very difficult. I spent four years not in school. But I was also doing something valuable, which I didn’t know was valuable — I just thought I was whiling away time — which was technology.
My determination and strength, I’ll say, came from the fact that I was already used to seeing my siblings try to survive by themselves, so I knew that that was the path I was going to take. There was no mom. I mean, I can’t remember any memory of my mother. So, for a very, very long time I didn’t know what it feels like to even have a mom. I mean, I just pushed that away most of the time. And father was not particularly there. What I know to be father right now was not what I had growing up. What I remember of my dad was just always beating all of his children. Regardless of what you do, you get beaten.
So, so I was seeing my siblings fend for themselves, so I knew that that was the path I was going to take. I didn’t want to be in a place of entitlement, because I knew no one was going to help me, so I needed to help myself. And in helping myself, again, I didn’t know what the future was going to hold for me, but I knew I had to keep moving. Regardless of where I’m going, I just have to keep moving.
So I think that was it. I mean, I got myself into university eventually, but — and I also remember there was a time that I needed to leave the country because I thought I had to leave the country to make a life or to have a future.
And in a way, a lot of people still believe that in Nigeria today — that for your life to make sense, you must get out of Nigeria. But I can tell you that that’s not true, ’cause I didn’t leave Nigeria until my life made sense in Nigeria. Then I start stepping out. And so I joined NIIT. It was a computer institute. But I didn’t gain so much from there compared to what I gained from the IT audit firm I spent about seven years in. I was able to meet a lot of people. Was not as rosy, because it was a process of growth. I grew, not because I was having fun, but because, I mean, computer was like a hiding place for me. It was where I can bury a lot I was going through. I mean, in my brain, I wasn’t going through anything, because going through stuff was very normal, was life.
I mean, you won’t notice another life until you have something you can compare life with. So my life was my life, basically. So, that was when I became a tech guru, I would say. That was when I became a computer programmer. I was reading books, mighty books, thousands of pages, and you had limited time.
So I think the chairman of the company, Chris Ekeigwe, really helped because he was extremely firm with us. He wasn’t taking chances with anyone. I mean, I was in that IT audit firm learning so much about the world of computers, technology, programming, auditing and the likes.
ABISOYE: When I finished my secondary education, my life was waking up, sleeping, I’m being in the kitchen — because I was living with my family friend, my family friend, like, they are elderly people with their kids. I felt I was living an aimless life because now I despise it so much, and probably that’s why I do one of the things I do, which is life is useless when all you do is wake up, sleep, eat food, walk around the house, wake up, sleep. But that was the norm. Like, when you wake up, you are thinking the next time you are going back to bed. Was not my life. But that was my life then. I didn’t like it, so I knew I had to look for what to do.
Then at this point, my sister and I start planning how I was going to leave Nigeria. So I did SAT — S-A-T — TOEFL and those kinds of exams. So my biggest surprise actually, gain admission to a school in New York. I couldn’t fill my application, my visa application, for myself, definitely. I didn’t have the brain for it. I mean, compared to what I know now, and now I understand it now. So I think my sister and my brother probably filled it for me. And I went to the embassy because I just felt in my brain that my school admission in New York was all I needed to get out of Nigeria. If I knew I was going to, if someone had told me I wasn’t going to get a visa, I’d be like you are joking. I went there, and of course they’re asking me questions. I didn’t fill my form, so they were able to even see through me immediately that you’re not going anywhere. You don’t even know what you are going to do. And I wanted to die from that day. To be honest, I was thinking of what to do with my life because I felt my life was not going anywhere again, if I wasn’t going to leave Nigeria. I cried, I slept, I woke up, I kept crying. And my brother just laughed at me. He said, “I’ve been in your shoes” — that the day he got denied his own visa, he almost entered the ocean. I said, “Well, I’ve thought about that too.” But I mean, I don’t — I really think through it when I want to think of just killing yourself. I mean, there’s nothing to life again besides that. I mean, I just thought getting a university admission was all I needed for my life to be [inaudible] — I mean, in the U.S. Not even anywhere else. So when that didn’t work, I said to myself that I wasn’t going back to the embassy for any reason again. And I didn’t go there for about nine years. But in that space of nine years, my life changed, being in Nigeria.
So when I didn’t get that, my brother started talking to people. OK, Abisoye has some passion with computers, technology. And his friend, who is way older than him, told him about the IT audit firm. He runs it. So he owns the place. He has been there, prior to where he joined, 15 years. And they have been able to have — I can call it products in people — people they have been able to develop and invest in and they’ve been able to turn out for good. So he was like I should join. To be honest, it was boring. It was super boring. Because I’m coming from Microsoft Word, Excel PowerPoint, graphics to computer programming. They are two different worlds. They are both good in their own ways, but they are two different worlds. So I was always complaining. My brother would be like, don’t worry, just manage. And the chairman was not even giving me easy ground. He was always saying you look jobless, don’t you have what to do with your life? So I just felt, why is this guy attacking me? I don’t know you from anywhere. Boy, he was the greatest influence ever — himself and my brother, actually.
And being an intern, you’re just learning, delivering letters for conferences and the likes, tea girl kind of work. And you’re not being paid anything for that. So I just felt, let me just keep learning. So I was able to understand the value of education and the value of being an intern, because there is a whole lot you can learn from when you are not being paid. There is a lot you can see. Your motivation is not money. Your motivation is bigger than whatever it is that is out there.
VOICEOVER: Abisoye’s work experience with the IT audit firm ignited an interest in computers and the opportunities available for those less fortunate in her community. That potential fueled the creation of Pearls Africa.
ABISOYE: Pearls Africa Foundation promotes the cause and advancement of vulnerable young girls for the purpose of economic independence through technology. And we equip girls age range 10 to 17. We want them to be creators of technology and not mere users. I believe that their life can change for good if they are creators of tech, if they can build apps, if they can think problems and think solutions and build applications around it. So I would say it stems from my own personal background and my journey that what I went through that helped me while I stayed in Nigeria can actually help a lot of Nigerian girls be better, be good, and make something out of their lives.
The girls we help in Pearls Africa are from different marginalized societies. We have girls from the slums. And people in the slum live under a dollar a day, just to explain the demographic a bit. We have girls from internally displaced people. They are girls from Borno state, which are Boko Haram–affected people that fled to Lagos. And we have girls from transit homes, we have girls from correctional centers. We have girls from the orphanage homes. And we have girls who, their parents can’t even afford the programs we do. So, yes, those are the people we work with.
When we started Pearls Africa, of course, we didn’t know where we were going. But it was a risk. We just had to start regardless. Then we started in the slum, it wasn’t conducive, and because we’re thinking futuristic, how can they learn where they live, seeing the same thing? We needed to take it out of what they see, to see something different. So we are using a friend’s boardroom on Saturdays. So every Saturday myself and my friends we are teaching girls to code, and of course we are also feeding every Saturday. And we didn’t want it to be a situation whereby it would be because of the food that they come over to do training, because that can also be the thing.
So initially we took in everyone without interviewing anybody, but we knew that was not also working because there were people that were not changing, they were not, they were not affected positively. So we’re like, we knew we had to change our model. And again, since we were just starting, our hands were just open. Again, we didn’t see it as something serious. But at the same time, we were able to take the risk. But we started putting structures into place when we knew we had to apply for grants. We had to register properly, NGO. Then of course we started with family and friends’ donations — friends, family time. But at the same time we thought to make real impact, it can’t be a once-a-week kind of program. It has to be like an everyday, after-school, summer period kind of program. So we had to get a space. So we’ve been able to get funds from American Embassy, Nigeria, Union Bank, BudgIT. Of course, then there have been some in-kind supports from other people. Andela has been supportive. Mentors come around using their own time to mentor, to teach. Then we got laptops from a donor who chooses to remain anonymous. I mean, she didn’t want her name mentioned anywhere, so — all the laptops we are using right now came from her. She used a network to raise money for us to get laptops.
VOICEOVER: We asked Abisoye why it was important for GirlsCoding Nigeria to focus on teaching young girls how to write computer code and how she sustains the organization. Later, she shares stories of how the skills the girls are learning are having a real-world impact.
ABISOYE: I made the decision to teach girls from marginalized society how to code because I feel I was in their shoes. And, um, the process of my growth is what I’m trying to pass across to them. And 10 to 17 because, in a way, they are still moldable. You can still tell them what to do. Because I feel, when you try to teach adults, they tell you they know everything. And we rarely do for-profit. Even though we started that on the side now, because it’s a way of us remaining sustainable. And even though we didn’t plan it, privileged parents, they’ve seen what we do, and they believe their kids also deserves the same thing. So we charge them for it. The slum is not the easiest place to work if you want to make real, lasting impact. It’s not the easiest place to work, because I feel there are different challenges with our work. There is the technology, which is not what they are taught in school. There is the fact that you are teaching girls who are facing cultural beliefs and biases over the fact that they believe the tech world is for the guys.
We have this young girl called — her name is Sharon. And most of the time when we are starting a new year or a new — I don’t want to call it a semester. If we’re starting a new calendar year, we ask everyone to think of problems in their society. So we don’t tell them they are solving it because you bombard them with so much. We just tell them to think of the problems. We list it. We’re able to merge people together based on what they have identified. So if you’re thinking moneymaking, if you’re thinking exam or proxies, if you are thinking FGM, there are just different ways.
So we put them together to form teams. So this particular girl, her mother sells fish. Her father is a fisherman, but believes that the girls in Makoko don’t make a lot of money. She believes that the parents in Makoko, the fishermen, don’t make a lot of money, and she’s trying to see what she can do to aid.
So due to the tools we’ve been able to teach over time, we’re able to put them together, train them to be able to build solutions to such problems. So now they have an e-commerce site that the well-to-dos can actually place an order for seafood, and it gets to them from the fishing community. And that’s a big deal right now because there are actually people making use of it, and it’s life. It’s a big deal.
Then there is Nosirat, who is 13 years old. She is passionate about FGM, female genital mutilation. Extremely passionate. She identifies it as a problem. Talking about the pains young girls go through and why it should be stopped. So she’s created a website for awareness, what to do, what not to do, and she’s working towards having a mobile app for it so that you can report cases of FGM in different places and have the local authorities actually attend to people.
ABISOYE: When we started Pearls Africa, especially when we looked into girls coding, we had internship opportunities for girls, but they were not performing. And that’s because they are going with their usual attitude, characters and things they are already used to, that they were born with, into corporate world. So we had to put a stop to the internships and focus on mentoring. And we do that on different levels. We have one-on-one mentoring. They have different mentors that talk to them. And, of course, the mentors go through a vetting process to be sure what you’re coming to teach can pass across to the girls. Because we believe that character is a big deal. Regardless of where you go and regardless of what skills you have, if you don’t have good character or valuable traits, I think the person will be kicked out. So for them to be a complete woman — I should put it that way — you should have good character and have your brain intact.
The goal we have for the girls we’re helping is that they’re going to university, they think education, they think university. They go to university, studying STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. They come out not just looking for a job but creating jobs, because right now they can work, but we just don’t want them to work because they are not up to the age that they can work. And that’s why they can make money from the fact that they’re helping communities. But it’s ingrained in them that they can actually be creators of jobs, creators of tech, and things like that. So I know that by the time they are through with university, they won’t be looking for jobs. They will be creating jobs for their peers, for the girls.
And for Pearls Africa we need to get to a point where we have a girls’ village. And a girls’ village is a residential program for all girls with different classes, different sessions, where they can be all around learning different things. Technology is to be a core. They can perfect their projects. Their projects can have investors and things like that. So, that is what we need to do, because right now a lot of people are asking us, when we call for summer programs that people should come in, they ask us for accommodation, and we’ve not gotten there yet. So we need to get to that point where there will be paid and there will be free. The free will be for those we know that they can’t afford our programs, while the paid will be for those middle-class and upper-class people.
VOICEOVER: Finally, we asked Abisoye what advice she’d give YALI Network members who are interested in following in her footsteps.
ABISOYE: The advice I would like to give to YALI Network members that would like to do what I’m doing is you should know why you are doing what you’re doing. And you should — because the reason why you do what you do will help you when you want to give up. I mean, there were times I wanted to give up, but I know the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. Your motivation should never be money, because whatever comes to your organization is not for you. It’s really for the foundation. It’s really to make impact and try to scale. So you shouldn’t go into this space of NGOs and make money for your own self. You should have like a consulting outfit on the other side. You should have something that can help you personally. Don’t focus on the NGO to help you. If not, you will run it down.
I’m a member of the YALI Network because it’s a space where collaborations and partnership can be formed. You can get network of people doing similar work. And you can actually engage people on a professional level. Yes, it’s a good place to network and meet like-mind people. Yes.
Some of the YALI Network courses my girls have taken is Understanding the Rights of Women and Girls. And they loved the course. And to them, when they’re talking about it, they tell you, I know my rights, I know what to do, I am bored. And these are things we may not be able to teach them because it’s not our core, but, I mean, I’m glad that there are courses online that they can actually learn these things themselves.
Let’s get connected on Twitter. We can connect on Facebook. My name is Abisoye Ajayi on Facebook, on Twitter. Let’s connect, ask your questions. I’m willing to share various things that has helped me in my growth process.
VOICEOVER: Thank you, Abisoye. To learn more about Abisoye and her work, visit pearlsafrica.org. That’s P-E-A-R-L-S-A-F-R-I-C-A dot O-R-G.
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